ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 12: Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds third base after hitting a three-run home run against the Houston Astros in the home opener at Busch Stadium on April 12, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
As I walked into Busch Stadium on Wednesday for the 7:15 game decked out in Astros gear, a couple of obviously inebriated Cardinals fans came up to me. Now, I was expecting some heavy trash talk at this point, since the Astros hadn't won a game and there was a sea of Cardinal Red around the stadium. Do you know what they said?
"Keep your chin up, dude," Drunk Guy No. 1 said. "It'll get better. Don't let anyone else get to you."
"I feel sorry for you," Drunk Guy No. 2 said. "Your team sucks so bad. I have to respect anyone who'd represent them."
That's right. They felt sorry for me.
Is that where the 2010 Astros have left us? We are to be pitied instead of mocked or feared?
Needless to say, it was a surreal start to my first Busch Stadium experience. All in all, though, we had a nice time. It was the first Astros game my 10-month old went to and Brett Myers didn't disappoint, matching Brad Penny in the second real pitcher's duel of the season for Houston. From the moment I walked through the gate, I was very aware that I was a stranger in a strange land.
I literally saw no one else sporting Astros gear the entire time I was in the stadium. We sat near the right foul pole on the second deck. All the way to our seats, all through the game and all the way back to the car, nary a starred hat or brick-red jersey to be seen. Krissy claims she saw a group of Astros fans as she was walking around the concourse to calm down the boy, but I never did.
That's exactly what I expected to see. St. Louis is considered to be a baseball town while Houston is not. That's probably because almost all the fans in the stadium are Cardinals fans at their home games while Astros fans get overwhelmed by Cubs fans or Braves fans when those teams come to town. You know what? I don't totally buy that. Sure, there were plenty of people in red at the game. They were wearing Pujols or Carpenter or Molina jerseys. I even saw one Willie McGee throwback. But, for a pitcher's duel, there wasn't much energy in the crowd. Many of the fans around me were more politely clapping rather than getting into the game.
The most excited I heard them get was in the third inning. That was the 'Mow 'Em Down Inning,' where a local lawnmower company would give away a free mower if Penny struck out the side. After Towles and Myers went down on strikes, Michael Bourn came up.
They flashed a graphic on the big scoreboard in center field that said Bourn had struck out 200-something times against right-handed pitchers. No number of plate appearances, no context at all to show that his 200 strikeouts came over a larger number of at-bats than Towles' 52. I'll get back to this in a minute. All through Bourn's plate appearance, you could hear a buzz from the crowd. They cheered every strike and were actually disappointed when Bourn grounded out to Lopez. That's not an indictment of Cardinals fans. After all, all fans get more excited about home runs and high scoring affairs. Of anyone, though, I'd expect Cards fans to be into a good old fashioned pitcher's duel. I guess all teams have these kinds of problems, with diehard fans getting priced out. Our section just happened to be near a lot of the luxury suites.
That did lead to one of the funnier moments of my trip to the park. The guy in the Willie McGee jersey asked us as we were leaving, 'What exactly is an Astro?' Just the kind of smartass thing I'd say to another team's fan. Since we'd just lost a demoralizing 2-1 affair, I didn't have a snappy rejoinder. Instead, I mumbled, "I have no idea," and kept walking. You know what, though? I really didn't get as much grief as I expected to at the game. That was the only guy who said anything to me. Most of the people there just looked me like I was an alien, walking around in strange outfits, not knowing how to act around me. When people did talk to me, they were generally nice. One of the ushers saw us in Astros gear and said, "Hope you had a good time. Things will get better. I really thought the Astros would be our main competition in the Central this year." The couple sitting behind us at the game turned out to be from Houston. Early on, the girl tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, 'I'm for Houston too.' Couldn't say that too loud, after all.
Let's take a moment to discuss ballpark etiquette. When I go to an Astros game, I usually lose my voice from yelling. I'm not the loudest guy out there, nor am I the one who tries to get his whole section to yell in between innings. I just holler on big plays, strikeouts and the like enough times that I'm hoarse the next day. But, I'm also used to covering games from the press box. In case you haven't heard, there are huge signs in every press box I've ever been to saying something like, "NO CHEERING. If we hear you, you get kicked out." Needless to say, you are very guarded with your emotions. I'm used to watching a game passively without getting into it. What was weird about the Cardinals game is that when the Astros did something good, I felt like I was back in the press box. Crickets could have chirped louder than the cheers from the crowd. I get it's an enemy ballpark, but even when I was in Wrigley last summer, there were louder cheers for Houston hits and runs.
That was different, but expected. I didn't go to Busch Stadium thinking it would be a haven for Astros fans. I was surprised by a couple of other things about the stadium. It's a very pretty stadium to look at. Driving past it, walking up to it is just an experience for the eyes. If you catch it in the right angle and can see the Arch at the same time, it's a postcard waiting to happen. Except...every park has its corporate sponsors. I understand that. I've even learned to tune out the huge signage at MMP (even the fowl poles). I didn't expect a park like Busch to have four distinct giant neon signs advertising different places. The big Anheuser-Busch clock sign was expected. The Big Mac Land sign was also a nice touch, as everyone in that section received free hypodermic...wait, it was just a McDonald's sponsored section. My bad. What stood out to me was the giant Hardee's billboard on the top level of the stadium and the big Coke sign in the outfield. They weren't a detraction, per se, since the ballpark was still plenty beautiful. I just didn't expect an 'old fashioned' ballpark to have that kind of flashiness.
Busch Stadium is definitely an old fashioned place. They want you to feel like you're in Wrigley Field, with no replay board and a hand-operated scoreboard. However, they do have a giant video screen. And multiple working, networked computer boards around the stadium with which they can deliver a host of information. Do they, though? No. I was sorely disappointed in the amount of information I could see at the game. For instance, they did have a spot for pitch count and the pitch speed. They did not include a pitch type. That's a little thing, sure, but it would have been nice to see whether Myers' 86 MPH pitch was a slider or a fastball, instead of just assuming. The video board was also disappointing. It's a nice, big screen but they choose to fill it with lame mid-inning games (a Wheel of Fortune game where the answer was Stan The Man Musial, but they gave the guy almost all the letters to start), instead of, you know, relevant pieces of information. I got the lineups, but I only saw batting average, home runs and RBIs for the rest of the way. Even when they did show something like strikeouts, you got no context with it (as I mentioned before). I know most teams haven't caught the Statistical Revolution, but come on. Show me at least one OBP, please?
The only other weird quirk I saw was that there is supposed to be this Ballpark Village next to the stadium. It was going to be this big extravaganza with shops and games and such that people could hang out in before and after games. Except Busch Stadium went up shortly before the economy tanked. So the thing never got built. It's now just a big parking lot for the game. It's a little expensive at 15 dollars, but was easy to get to and easy to get out of, so for a newbie like me, it was worth a few extra dollars. Much like MMP, Busch is in the middle of a downtown area where parking is limited. There were a couple parking garages that I saw, but we found the BV parking lot before having to make a dash for one of them.
You didn't come here for a travel log, though. You came here for baseball talk. I'll oblige you now by moving to the bullet points for my thoughts on the game (two days ago):
- Michael Bourn was pretty freaking incredible. I was going crazy on those two catches he made along the warning track. No one else in my section liked that. They were all pretty shocked he was able to get there. I was not.
- J.R. Towles looks really, really bad right now at the plate. He might need some time off, giving Q a few more starts. He may just need to play more, though. I'm not sure what his problem is, but he's not hitting the ball with any force. If I can find the data out there, I'll try and look at what kinds of pitches are giving him trouble (I think FanGraphs might have that, but I'm too lazy to look right now).
- The Astros offense was so inept that my 10-month old son could have batted cleanup. At least then we could make a movie out of it. Call it, 'Baby Batter,' and get Disney to produce. You're telling me you wouldn't go see that? You could even put it in a box set with Rookie of the Year and Little Big League.
- Albert Pujols is really, really good. It's the little things that you notice about him in person, though. Like how he can hit a foul tapper with the same easy swing as a ball he hit 395 feet. He doesn't even look like he's swinging that hard and the ball just jumps off his bat. Can we rig up some of that Red Kryptonite in his bat next time, just to make sure he's not, ahem, enhanced by our yellow sun?
- Schumaker was really flashy on a double play turn, shuttling the ball all in one motion as he fielded it to Brendan Ryan. The only problem was El Bufalo was running to first. He could have taken his time, gotten a snack and then made the throw to get the double play. Just needless and another reason for me to irrationally dislike the Cardinals.
- One of the Cards fans next to me was making fun of Hunter Pence's throwing motion as he was warming up between innings. I believe he said something like, "I'd like to see him hit a cutoff man," and then shook his head in disbelief. The irony here is that Pence gets more outfield assists than most of the right fielders in the National League. He just looks kinda goofy doing it.